23 September 2010

Hot Time in the Old Town

Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore RooseveltHot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt by Edward P. Kohn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is an unfortunate example of overambition. Hot Time in the Old Town, in addition to being an earworm for anyone who ever went to Girl Scout camp, attempts to tell three interlocking story: the rise of Theodore Roosevelt's political career, the collapse of William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential campaign, and the forgotten tale of a ten-day stretch in August of that year when the heat index in New York City remained well over 100 degrees, due to a disastrous combination of high temperatures and humidity--a heat wave that killed about 1,300 people. All three stories are interesting and deserving of attention--the book was never boring--but the connections between them are often tenuous, and the chapters jump from one to the other with little transition, giving the narrative a jerky quality.

Roosevelt was police commissioner at the time, and made some laudable decisions that helped the sweltering populace, especially the denizens of the oven-like Lower East Side tenements: police wagons were deputized as extra ambulances, and towards the end of the heat wave, officers handed out free ice to the poor. When Roosevelt learned of the rampant fraud going on (some families sent multiple children to pick up ice & resold it; wealthy people who could afford ice lined up with the indigent), he re-organized the distribution by giving individual beat cops vouchers to distribute to the families they knew from experience were the neediest. But other than these two initiatives, Roosevelt had little involvement in the events of the heat wave, and he spent most of the time at his house on Long Island, well out of the city.

Bryan, for his part, arrived in NYC at the height of the disaster to give a speech at Madison Square Garden--accepting his nomination to the Democratic ticket and bringing his Western populism to the hostile--but crucial--East Coast. I am not going to go into the debate then raging regarding "bimetallism"--tying the dollar to both silver AND gold--since although it was the cornerstone of Bryan's campaign, it is eye-glazingly dull at the best of times, and especially when one has been reading harrowing tales of tenement dwellers driven to sleep on their roofs falling off in the middle of the night and the epidemic of horse carcasses rotting in the streets. True, Bryan's speech went over like a lead balloon, badly enough that his campaign strategists cancelled the rest of his East Coast tour--but I just don't buy that it was all due to the heat.

So Hot Time in the Old Town was ultimately disappointing, in structure if not in content--I think that the heat wave itself would have made more a fascinating book without trying to tie it into the politics of the time. I also feel like no book should ever have both a prologue and an introduction--or, even worse, a "conclusion," an "epilogue," and a postscript. Seriously? Three endings? Come on.

However, the author did quote Roosevelt's 1891 book on the history of New York, which I am taking as my motto in tough times from now on: "[New York's] life is so intense and varied, and so full of manifold possibilities, that it has a special fascination for ambitious and high-spirited men of every kind, whether they wish to enjoy the fruits of past toil, or whether they have yet their fortunes to make, and feel confident that they can swim in troubled waters--for weaklings have small chance of forging to the front against the turbulent tide of our city life. The truth is that every man worth his salt has open to him in New York a career of boundless usefulness and interest." A-men, Teddy!

18 September 2010

The NYC Indie Bookstore Tour Spoils!

(Besides, of course, a righteous collection of bookmarks.)

Aforementioned: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, at McNally Jackson

Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers, at Housing Works Bookstore: Powers' Operation Wandering Soul was probably my first exposure to the intricate possibilities of postmodern plot and prose. (And somehow I didn't get a bookmark here. Weird.)

Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe, at The Strand: A New Hampshire bookseller I know from Twitter (@MissLiberty) was in town last Sunday for the Brooklyn Book Festival (I went. It rained and I felt lonely. Crowds=not my thing), and was all a-flutter about meeting Mr. Sharpe, which is why I picked up this remainder. Then I saw it was dystopic and was like SIGN ME UP.

The Intutionist, Colson Whitehead, at Spoonbill & Sugartown: As aforementioned, I loved his Sag Harbor with all my heart and probably half of someone else's if they'd lend it to me--but it's the only one of his I've ever read. Happy to get the chance to remedy this!

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan, at Three Lives: To be honest, I don't know much about this one, except that it's even French-ier than Bad Marie. I think I will read it wearing my striped almost-boatneck.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem, at Book Culture: I do love Lethem, and not just because he showed up at his post-Thanksgiving marathon-reading-with-donuts at WORD in the world's cutest sweater vest. A prime example of the hyper-literate, pop-culture-addled prose style that will lead me to forgive almost any literary sin. And a great riff on the noir novel, only with an excessively verbose hero rather than a taciturn one.

The Scar, China Miéville, at Greenlight: O hai, Mr. Awesomepants, we meet again! And in convenient mass-market paperback form!

The Midwife's Apprentice, Karen Cushman, at BookCourt: Will be starting this immediately after finishing this blog post! Stephanie, my manager at WORD, is only five years younger than me, and it almost never makes a difference, especially as we were similarly bookish children--but when she described this one to me, I was like "How on earth did I miss this when I was a little girl?!?!" Check the pub date: oh, I was in high school.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, at Park Slope Community Bookstore: Another mass-market find! So many folks have recommended this one to me, I have no idea how I've let it go so long. Also, this bookstore totally had a kitty, happily ensconced on Emma Donoghue's Room--what does it say about me that I'll take a feline endorsement over that of the Booker Prize committee?

I would also like to mention, proudly, that these purchases brought my to-be-read stack up to 19, and I've been rolling a d20 to randomly determine which to read next. Says my friend Marlo, "Sometimes, I'm not sure that you can get any nerdier. Then you post this. It's adorable." Why, thank you!

I have nothing to link these three, except they're all orangish.

Dogfight, a Love Story, Matt Burgess: Billed as doing for Queens what Jonathan Lethem's books do for Brooklyn...sort of, inasmuch as it's both a love letter to the crazy diverse energy of the borough and a borderline-bleak tale of the edge of the criminal element. I found it more competent than brilliant, though; Burgess doesn't have Lethem's way with words. I also found myself trying to explain it to a bank officer in Ridgewood while making a deposit--"Well, it's about a guy whose brother is getting out of prison and he's trying to organize a welcome-home dogfight. It's not going well, which is good"--and wondered if I came off as slightly unhinged. Dude's name was Gift, btw. What a great name.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill her Neighbor's Baby, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: What a great title, huh? A book of scary, weird fairy tales from a prominent Soviet/Russian writer. Really reminded me of the bloodthirsty old folklore I loved as a child--Disney Schmisney, I had the reading skillz for the originals, so that's what I read. (My first Barbie is missing her toes because I cut them off while playing Cinderella. I was five.) A friend & I might stage a reading of some around Halloween.
This was also my first purchase on my whirlwind One-Woman NYC Indie Bookstore Support & Resume-Dropping-Off Tour, 10% off at McNally Jackson. I find myself once again looking for work, a long story I'm not inclined to tell in this forum, and Tuesday through Thursday this week I visited three bookstores a day, featuring exciting subway logistics, some IRL tweep-meetin', and the purchasing of nine books (always use to hate it when people would come into WORD and ask for a job without buying anything, like, "Oh, I would love to work here, but I have no interest in helping the store stay open. Don't worry, they were almost all on sale, or cheapie mass-market paperbacks). BTW, McN J? Want to curl up on your shiny shelves and live there, Mixed-Up Files style.

Life Sentences, Laura Lippman: Never read her before! This was great--an amazing exploration of the shifting nature of our pasts, and the ownership of stories, particularly in our memoir-obsessed current culture. Not all writers can write about writers without seeming self-indulgent, but Lippman does a great job of creating Cassandra Fallows. And she had me in the first chapter with her spot-on depiction of a typical reading, down to the questions people always ask but never think the author has heard before.

Three hefty tomes.

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville: Gah. GAH. This dude may be the most jaw-droppingly imaginative talent I've ever read, and Exhibit A for the end to marginalization of "genre" fiction. To be able to dream such bizarre-yet-familiar worlds and peoples and monsters without being completely mad oneself is such a rarity--if no one else ever wrote a book again besides him and Kelly Link (and Peter Cameron for some realism once in a while. And Brian Lies, for picture books with bats in them), I would be a happy camper. (Also, my boyfriend is sick of hearing about Mr. Miéville. I probably should not have mentioned that he's also v. attractive.)

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel: Last year's Man Booker Prize winner, and I'm on a weird kind of fence about it. It is not that I didn't enjoy it--I certainly did--but I am just not sure what raises it above popular Tudor romance like Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. It traffics in the same marvelous gossip-y history, covers the same time period, has many characters in common: why, though, is Wolf Hall Serious Lit Fic while Mss. Gregory and Weir are considered "low" commercial fiction? My only answer is in writing style, but there I'm left with how often I was confused as to who was speaking or acting or the subject of the sentence. Does "hard to follow" equal "literary"? If so, why on earth? But again, I did like this book. I just don't see how it differs qualitatively from other historical fiction or, say, The Tudors, which I started watching on Netflix after reading Wolf Hall and which is glorious, giddy, overwrought, exploitative fun. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has not yet bellowed, "Because I am the KING!!!" while overturning a table, but OMG I know it's coming.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: I don't generally underline quotes in books I'm reading--at least when it's not Montaigne--but I wish I had with this one, because it's been a few weeks since I read it and the beauty of the writing is so incredible, I'd love to have examples at my fingertips. These 600 pages about the trauma of adolescence and what follows, set in an Irish boarding school, also give the lie to my tendency to say I'm not interested in realistic fiction; but it gives me a touchstone for what makes me want to read the non-speculative--Skippy Dies hits the sweet spot for me between bleak and hilarious, between epic and hopelessly mundane. And it taught me something about WWI I hadn't previously known: how Irishmen who fought with the British Empire found themselves traitors in the wake of the Easter Rebellion, and a generation was simply swept under the carpet. Just when you think there can't be more tragedy associated with the Great War...

13 September 2010

Vacation reads and a reread.

For the first time in ages, I brought more books on a trip that I had time to read. CRAZY TIMES. I blame my laptop, which I brought with me expecting to work on my Marlene Dietrich/von Sternberg paper (yeah, didn't happen. Applied for an extension, and wrote most of it in a too-much-coffee-not-enough-food trance on the first of September. At 20 pages, it's the second longest essay I've ever written), as well as only having four full days with my family, some of the few people on this earth I prefer to books. I did, however, read:

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell: One of WORD's perennial bestsellers, and I never got around to reading it until I wasn't working there anymore. Better late than never, though--it is, in fact, a marvelous book. Less experimental than I expected, in that it's really the structure that is unusual (six nesting novellas, like matroyshka dolls), as each narrative is fairly straightforward in and of itself. I'm amazed by Mitchell's creation of six such distinct, compelling individual voices, my favorite being the spluttery what's-all-this-then erudition of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish."

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan: I don't know that I've ever read a romance novel cover to cover, but my high school bestie and I gleaned hours of entertainment whilst working at Goodwill together--paperback books were like a quarter, and we'd highlight the naughty bits (and sometimes select words to create wholly unintended naughty bits); we were also aficionados of the classic overwrought Zebra Historical covers. (Later, in college, my sister and I decorated one of the bathrooms in the suite we shared with a linked chain of lurid titles: Beloved Viking to Viking Betrayer to Betrayed by Passion, e.g.) Said high-school-bestie is in fact having her first Regency romance (Season of Temptation) published by Kensington in October 2011--I could not be prouder (or more hopeful of appearing on the Acknowledgments page).
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying that this book, by the foundresses of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, is smart, eye-opening, and absolutely sheer-f-ing-hilarious. Can't think of the last time I LOLed so much at a book!

Meeks, Julia Holmes: Tied with Sarah Wendell's appearance at the romance-section launch for WORD Event I'm Sorriest I Missed in July was the launch for this slim, spare, haunting debut novel from Small Beer Press, a teensy Massachusetts publisher run in part by my favorite little-known author, short-story genius Kelly Link (READ HER READ HER READ HER. DO NOT PASS GO.) The book takes place in a rigid dystopia wherein a returning veteran (from a generations-long war against a never-encountered Enemy) tries to vain to get his hand on a bachelor suit, without which he can't marry. Really well-done, especially in terms of lack of backstory--as if the novel's the tenth of the iceberg that juts above the surface of history.

Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead: Gosh, this book is great. I first read it in hardcover last summer, at the relentless urging of then-boss Sarah, and I think it may be a perennial summer read for me. This time around, it was still funny through an unexpected nine-hour layover in Baltimore AND the day I had to put down my oldest cat. Powerful endorsement, eh?
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